‘The biggest risk I took was…’

‘Life had its own plans and now I have learnt to go with the flow.’

Photograph: Kind courtesy Manushi Chhillar/Instagram

In 2017, Manushi Chhillar surprised everyone by winning not only the Miss India title, but also Miss World.

The 20-year-old girl from Rohtak, Haryana, was only the sixth Indian to wear the crown.

Manushi was doing her MBBS at the Bhagat Phool Singh Medical College in Sonipat, her future all charted out in her mind, when these two beauty pageants changed the direction of her life and career.

Two years later, she started shooting for her first film, Samrat Prithviraj, and by the end of this week, she will have three films in her kitty.

Speaking to Rediff.com Senior Contributor Roshmila Bhattacharya, Manushi admits that everything changed almost immediately after she won the crown: “I feel a little more at ease now with my role as an actor and the people around seem more familiar. I’ve started to understand my job and the film industry a little better now.”

IMAGE: Manushi Chhillar and Varun Tej in Operation Valentine.

Your new film Operation Valentine is a Hindi-Telugu bi-lingual. How difficult was it shooting for two versions simultaneously, one in a language you were not too familiar with?

(Laughs) Not too familiar is an understatement. I wasn’t at all familiar with Telugu, so, yes, the language was a challenge.

When I accepted the film, I thought that since I’m comfortable with Hindi, I would simply translate the lines in Telugu.

I learnt them well and spoke them correctly on set, but since the grammar is very different, I soon realised that I couldn’t emote in Telugu the way I would in Hindi.

But I have seen the Telugu scenes and they are looking good so I’m happy.

And now, after shooting for so long, I understand the language a little better though I have to admit, I still can’t converse in Telugu.

Are you planning to do more films down South now that cinema has become pan-India?

I didn’t not want to work in South films.

I had really loved S S Rajamouli’s Magadheera, the Telugu fantasy action romance with Ram Charan and Kajal Aggarwal which, if I remember correctly, released way back in 2009.

I’ve watched other South films too before Operation Valentine happened, coincidentally in a space I’ve always loved. My one big learning from the film is that language doesn’t matter.

It’s okay if, as an actor, you are able to convey the right emotions even if you don’t completely understand the words you are speaking.

Now, I only want to do good films irrespective of the language.

IMAGE: Manushi Chhillar wins the Miss World crown. Photograph: Kind courtesy Manushi Chhillar/Instagram

You won the Miss India crown in 2017. How much has life changed in these six years?

Everything changed almost immediately after I won the crown.

In these last six years, I’ve been exposed to so many different things.

For almost all of 2018, I was travelling around the world, meeting dignitaries, politicians and leaders, while representing the Miss World Organization.

I spoke to under-privileged societies and raised funds for the ‘Beauty with a Purpose’ initiatives.

I don’t think any other platform could have given you this kind of exposure.

Then, immediately after my return to India, I started prepping for my debut film and we began shooting for Samrat Prithviraj by the end of 2019.

The film took a while to wrap up because of the COVID-19 pandemic during which I did one more film, The Great Indian Family.

Every experience taught me something new.

As the most beautiful girl in the world with a crown on your head, you entered the film industry with sky-high expectations…

Yes, since Aishwarya (Rai Bachchan) and Priyanka (Chopra Jonas) had done so well for themselves, people had certain expectations from me as I am a Miss World too.

These actresses have been around for so long, took their time to create a space for themselves, and that’s what I’;m trying to do too.

Photograph: Kind courtesy Manushi Chhillar/Instagram

Now there are comparisons with Deepika Padukone too…

(Cuts in) Really? Is it because of the dimples?

Well, there is a certain similarity in your appearances and both of you were models and outsiders to the industry.

(Smiling) Deepika is again someone who has been very successful and who I look up to.

So, I’m flattered by the comparisons.

Aishwarya, Priyanka and now Deepika have all ventured Westwards. Will we also see you in a Hollywood film someday or an American series or maybe even world cinema?

I’ve just done a Telugu film which has taught me that language is no barrier, your work as an artist is the same everywhere.

So as long as I see myself growing in this profession and having fun on a project, I will take it up.

By the end of this week, with Operation Valentine releasing on March 1, you will be three films old. Is it easier now?

Well, yes, I feel a little more at ease now with my role as an actor and the people around seem more familiar.

I’ve started to understand my job and the film industry a little better now.

I’ve a lot to be grateful for in these six years.

IMAGE: Manushi Chhillar with Akshay Kumar in Samrat Prithviraj.

Your choice of films has been interesting and diverse. After a historical romance (Samrat Prithviraj), a comedy-drama (The Great Indian Family) and a patriotic action thriller revolving around Air Force heroes on the frontline (Operation Valentine), you have an action-comedy (Bade Miyan Chote Miyan) and a geo-political thriller (Tehran) lined up and an untitled Filip Markovic action film reportedly in development. How do you pick your roles?

There are a lot of factors that play a role.

Some films didn’t happen because of date issues and maybe some did because the set-up felt right at that point of time.

Like I said, I did not grow up thinking I wanted to be an actor.

Had that been the case, I would have spent more time prepping for this journey.

(Laughs) Now, I have to do my little crash courses between projects and polish my craft.

The learning continues even on a film set because no matter how much you rehearse, there are certain things that you understand only while you are shooting.

There’s no hard-and-fast strategy, I want to work with different directors and play different characters.

Your parents, Dr Neelam Chillar and Dr Mitra Basu Chillar, are in the medical profession. You cleared your All India Pre-Medical Test at the first attempt.

Yes, I was training to be a doctor when I won the Miss India pageant and subsequently, the Miss World crown.

And they changed the direction of your career. Do you miss medicine?

While growing up. I knew exactly what my future would look like and medicine fit into that plan perfectly.

I also enjoyed being on stage, so I went to the National School of Drama.

But I never saw acting as a career and had anyone asked me then if I want to go to Mumbai to be an actor, I might have said no.

At the time, I wouldn’t have known how to go about things here but Miss World brought exposure and suddenly, film-makers were interested in working with me.

Thanks to that exposure, I had an idea about what I could do and how to do it.

Acting was very different from what I had in mind earlier but strangely, I feel completely at home in the film industry.

Since my father is a physician and a scientist, and my mother teaches in a medical college now, medicine will always be a part of my life.

Dinner table conversations usually revolve around what is happening in the healthcare industry.

At the same time, acting is such a consuming profession that I have no time to think of anything else during the day.

But had you continued in the medical profession, there would have been certain surety in your life unlike the film industry where your fortunes change every Friday. Has that made you more of a risk-taker?

I think I was always ready to take risks.

(Laughs) The biggest risk I took was letting go of my attendance at the medical college to take part in the Miss World contest.

I had everything planned in my head — when I would finish my studies, how long I would take on my specialisation, everything was charted out to the T.

But life had its own plans and now I have learnt to go with the flow.

IMAGE: Manushi Chhillar in Samrat Prithviraj. Photograph: Kind courtesy Manushi Chhillar/Instagram

What memories does your first film, Samrat Prithviraj, bring back today?

(Laughs) I was treated like a baby on that set because I was the only newcomer amongst seniors like Akshay Kumar, Sanjay Dutt, Sonu Sood, Ashutosh Rana, Manav Vij, Sakshi Tanwar and Writer-Director Dr Chandraprakash Dwivedi.

Even the producer, Yash Raj Films, was an established banner.

Everyone adopted this kid and took it upon themselves to ensure that I was all right.

When I faced the camera for my first shot, it felt that I was back in school and a student again.

You have come a long way since and this is an important year for you with three big films coming up and the weight of expectations on your frail shoulders…

(Laughs) Did you just call my shoulders frail?

I meant physically…

(Laughs) I know what you meant.

Well, by now, I am used to the expectations and responsibilities.

I’ve given my best to every project and as long as people appreciate that I have tried to play different parts, I’m fine.

Yes, it’s going to be a busy year with a lot of results.

Now, more than anything else, I feel the responsibility of signing the right films in the future.

After 28 years, the Miss World pageant has returned to India. As a role model, what would be your advice to aspiring beauty queens?

I believe the experience is so much more fulfilling than winning the crown itself because you get to spend so much time with the best in the world.

All these girls are winners and good at something.

When I contested for Miss World, I knew nothing about pageantry and had just three months after winning the Miss India title to learn all that I could.

I told myself that only one in a million girls get an opportunity to represent India at a global platform like the Miss World pageant, so I should not be thinking of winning, but just enjoy the experience.

That’s what I will tell these girls as well.

Everyone’s a winner, so just go out there and have fun.

Learn something from it.